MEMBERS CHALLENGE JUDGES ON BAIL REFORM
(AUSTIN) — Senators at Thursday's Finance Committee hearing warned judges that releasing dangerous criminals on low or personal recognizance bond needs to stop before more people get hurt. The committee was considering the Article IV budget, which covers all the state courts in Texas, and members took the opportunity to raise the issue with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, Nathan Hecht. "We've got people that have lost their lives because judges can't figure out that to let violent criminals back out onto the street like popcorn is the wrong thing to do," said Houston Senator Paul Bettencourt. Bail reform was a major issue last session, with the Senate passing a bail reform bill in the regular session and all three called sessions in 2021. The measure couldn't muster the required support in the House, however, and the issue went unaddressed.
Finance Committee Chair and Houston Senator Joan Huffman, who led last session's bail reform efforts, told members that she's filing more bail reform legislation this session. In 2021, Huffman passed legislation through the Senate four times that would've permitted judges to deny bond in the case of the most heinous crimes, as well as create a database of complete criminal history to aid judges in bail decisions, and another public database for judicial bond rulings. At Thursday's hearing, Huffman said she was working on legislation this session that would give the Commission on Judicial Conduct a mechanism to discipline judges who set bail insufficient to protect the public. "We hear the complaints all the time in hearings - horrible stories - and I just don't understand the decisions of the judges and I do think some of the decisions should violate some code of conduct," she said. "We're going to put that in statute, and if we have to file the complaints ourselves, we're going to file them, and file them, and file them until those judges, at least, make a few reasonable decisions."
Judge Hecht agreed on Thursday that the Legislature's direction on this issue was correct, though he questioned whether the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct was equipped to handle such issues. "There might be some other procedural way to address it," he told members. "I don't disagree with your efforts with respect to the conduct commission…it just hasn't been their history." Hecht said he prefers the establishment of a system whereby aggrieved individuals, such as victims of alleged violent criminals out on bond, can air that grievance outside of the justice system, avoiding the backlogs and delays that can plague a court docket. For Bettencourt, the moment for such remedies has passed. He cited the 2021 murder of Caitlynne Infinger, recounting how a pregnant woman was murdered by her estranged husband after he was released on a PR bond for domestic violence offence. "What do you expect would happen when that judge let that violent criminal out? She was dead within 48 to 72 hours," he said. "I'm outraged, I'm through with this…we've got to have this shut down before more people are killed." Dallas Senator Royce West joined his colleagues, telling Justice Hecht that this was an issue that crossed the partisan aisle. "I want to make sure that everyone understands, what the chair was mentioning, and the passion that was shown by Senator Bettencourt, is not a partisan issue," he said. "Both Democrats and Republicans feel the same way - at least this Democrat does."
Huffman warned that this bail issue is jeopardizing judicial pay raises sought in this biennial budget. "How would I go back to my constituents, some of who's children have been murdered by decisions of judges, and tell them that I put in a budget and I voted for a bill that's giving that person a twenty percent pay raise?" she asked.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, February 21 at 11 a.m.